Some Eastern European locals seek to shed their cities’ communist influences while others advocate to preserve them in their monotonous, panel-block glory.
By Aaron Tannenbaum
Every nation has some regrettable past, a period whose characteristic movements and attitudes it would rather not dwell upon. In some cases, sweeping undesirable history under the rug seems surprisingly simple. Many Eastern Europeans, however, do not have it so easy. Their painful history – decades of forced communist rule that finally collapsed with the Berlin Wall in 1989 – literally shaped the fabric of Eastern European life as evidenced by the unique architecture produced by communist regimes in the 1900s. In Russia, Ukraine, and other formerly communist countries, the buildings that line city streets serve as constant reminders of the power the governments once held and the supreme value that they placed on quality and utility.
Communist-era architecture in Eastern Europe is characterized by neighborhoods replete with identical housing blocks, typically prefabricated of concrete and stucco. Today, the Eastern European architecture scene is far more vibrant now that firms can operate freely with no obligation to the Stalinist virtues of social equality over individual achievement and unadorned utility over artful expression. Though Eastern European architects and urban planners are now free to reinvent their cityscapes, there is considerable debate over the extent to which communist-era architecture should be torn down and replaced and the extent to which it should be preserved for its historical significance.
In 2014, Slovakian firm GutGut added a moderate voice to this debate with its project “Paneláky”. More paneláks, communist-era communal housing developments, were constructed in former Czechoslovakia than anywhere else in the entire Soviet Bloc. GutGut sought to breathe new life into a panelák without destroying the history of communism that it recorded in its concrete walls and uniform apartments. Architects at GutGut transformed a dilapidated housing block in the Slovakian city of Rimavská Sobota, reconfiguring the development to house modern apartments of varying sizes and layouts.
GutGut focused its renovation on a few key aspects of the building. The firm first removed the prefabricated internal partitions that divided the panelák’s interior into many small residences. Next, GutGut gave the building a crisp white façade with simplistic balconies attached to each residence. To further distance the panelák from its utilitarian origins, the firm replaced the block’s storage facilities with a communal café, gym, and sauna. Somewhat ironically, these shared spaces reflect the Soviet ideals of public health and Fizkultura.
Paneláky has been largely well-received by the Slovakian public. Slovakian online news outlet Start It Up wrote (translated to English), “Of course, we do not want our cities [to appear to be influenced by] communism… GutGut demolished the stigma that these buildings are impossible to use today.” No groups publicly opposed the changes that GutGut and likeminded firms were making to Slovakia’s characteristic architecture.
In Russia, however, the movement to preserve Stalinist architecture for the sake of its historical significance has grown, gaining support from historians, architects, and a small portion of the general public. Life under communist rule may not have been the brightest moment in Eastern European’s past but it is undeniably a defining theme of the region’s 20th century history. To lose its distinctive architecture would be to lose an important part of its historical memory. To that end, a group of Moscow natives are working to earn the city’s Ninth District of Cheryomushki the status of Unesco World Heritage Site.
The neighborhood was built in the late 1950s as an experimental microrayon, or micro-district. Soviet architects, led by Natan Osterman, sought to build an entire residential neighborhood as cheaply and quickly as possible. They used several construction methods to build housing, schools, parks, a theatre, and other public spaces in an attempt to determine which are the most cost and time effective. Panel-block construction was found to be one of the best options because the material was cheap and large portions of buildings could be prefabricated off-site, significantly shortening the construction process.
The Soviet regime approved of the 9th District and replicated it throughout Moscow and other cities in the Eastern Bloc. While some microrayons have been renovated or rebuilt since the fall of the Soviet Union and many citizens hope that newer architecture will soon replace the motony of the mass-produced micro-district, Muscovite historians are vying to protect Cheryomushki. Experimental architecture on such a large scale is very rare, they say, and is not something to dispose of because we dislike its aesthetic. Cheryomushki is mundane in that there are hundreds of microrayons just like it throughout Europe, but it is unique in that it is the first of its kind. UNESCO has not yet accepted the historians’ bid to formally protect Cheryomushki.
While many Westerners associate Soviet-era architecture with unappealing brutalist structures, not all Eastern Europeans feel the same way. Although they serve as ubiquitous reminders of a difficult past, some works of communist architecture merit preservation, such as Moscow’s Cheryomushki. Projects that weren’t the first of their kind and aren’t worth preserving can at least be revitalized, as GutGut’s showed in creating Paneláky. The disagreement over what to do with these buildings is evidence that Eastern Europeans are quite diverse in how they relate to their political history.
Aaron is a freshman in Jonthan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.